A little radiation can delay cancer until after you are dead anyway

Jerry Cuttler, a tireless researcher on the topic of the health effects of low level radiation, sent me an article titled Toward Improved Ionizing Radiation Safety Standards from the July 2011 issue of Health Physics, a peer-reviewed journal about radiation safety. (Unfortunately, like many peer reviewed journals, Health Physics is not available for free online. It is possible to purchase individual articles or to gain access if you have a membership or access to a university or corporate library.)

The article explains in clear, but scientific terms, how radiation at low average levels can result in increasing the latency period of cancer development past the end of a natural lifespan. We all have the potential for developing cancer, but we also have finite lives. Dr. Raabe’s research has led him to the conclusion that low average doses of radiation that might add up to a substantial cumulative dose do not kill off cancer cells, but they delay the ability of those cells to do any real damage until after their host organism is dead from other causes anyway.

Dr. Raabe reaches an an important conclusion that should cause policy makers to require regulators to read his paper and pay attention to his recommendations. That is especially true for those policy makers that are deeply concerned about budget expenditures and claim to be looking under every rock for ways to cut spending.

Clearly the development of a radiation-induced malignant tumor from either protracted ionizing radiation exposures or acute exposures is not the result of a single random interaction of the ionizing radiation with an isolated cell. Hence, the term stochastic as used by the ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) is not appropriate. The following conclusions indicate that major revisions of the ICRP methodology and standards are needed, and other currently accepted ionizing radiation risk models should be improved to provide more meaningful and realistic estimates of ionizing radiation cancer risk:

  • Cancer induction risk associated with protracted or fractionated ionizing radiation exposure is a non-linear function of lifetime average dose rate to the affected tissues and exhibits a virtual threshold at low lifetime average dose rates;
  • Cumulative radiation dose is neither an accurate nor an appropriate measure of cancer induction risk for protracted or fractionated ionizing radiation exposure except for describing the virtual threshold for various exposures; and
  • Cancer promotion risk for ongoing lifetime biological processes is a relative process as seen in the RERF (Radiation Effects Research Foundation) studies of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors for brief high dose-rate exposures to ionizing radiation. It cannot be used to estimate cancer induction risk from protracted or fractionated ionizing exposures over long times and at low dose rates.


The current ICRP radiation protection recommendations certainly provide a high level of safety and protection for radiation workers and the public. Radiation safety has been the most important goal of the ICRP, and their recommendations have met that goal with distinction. However, the ICRP risk estimates and response models for protracted or fractionated ionizing radiation exposures and long-lived internal emitters seriously overestimate the risks of low doses. Reasonably accurate cancer induction risk estimates are needed to avoid expensive over-regulation and to bolster the scientific foundation of radiation safety regulations and analysis. Many of the current environmental radiation safety standards are inappropriately low and prohibitively expensive to enforce.

The current ICRP models of radiation carcinogenesis can be misleading. Revision of the radiation safety standards is needed that clearly distinguishes between radiation cancer promotion as observed in the atomic bomb survivor studies and radiation cancer induction as observed for long-lived internal emitters. In particular, the ICRP needs to revisit and revise the standards currently recommended for ionizing radiation-induced cancer. Recommended standards should be considered that are based on lifetime average dose rate to sensitive tissues in the case of internally-deposited, relatively long-lived radionuclides and other protracted or fractionated exposures rather than on cumulative or committed dose.

(Emphasis in original.)

John Stossel provides a another way to understand some of the effects that Dr. Raabe and others (his paper includes a full two column page of references) have noticed in their years of intensive study of the real health effects of measured or computed radiation exposures on a variety of population groups.

Additional Reading

The web presence of Paul Voosen (March 15, 2011) – Radiation and the Linear Hypothesis

GAO Testimony (July 8, 2000) RADIATION STANDARDS: Scientific Basis Inconclusive, and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues

About Rod Adams

21 Responses to “A little radiation can delay cancer until after you are dead anyway”

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  1. I like the idea of radiation having positive effects.

    One reason is the placebo effect. If you tell someone that some miracle drug will cure them, only that will help them fight their condition. Therefore, medical studies of new drugs need to take that into account.

    In the same way, telling people already hit by an historic quake and tsunami that the radiation helps is certain to be much better for them than what the other side does, even if there is no discernible effect either way.

  2. James Greenidge says:

    It shouldn’t be anymore outlandish to the public that there are beneficial side affters to mild and environmental radiation exposures than research that found milkmaids and other farm laborers in the pre-1900’s were less sceptible to smallpox plagues because they were often exposed to coxpox first which passed them an immunity advantage. It’d be interesting if a study was made of residents of Denver and other high-altitude places around the world and see whether there’s some kind of cellular tolerance to higher radiation levels in them. Ditto those peoples who long swelled near natural radon / uranium ore deposits; what were the lifespans of native peoples in such areas and what adaptive
    mutational advantages did such exposure give them if any, being that local radiation and cosmic rays are recognized drivers of evolution as well?

    James Greenidge

    • John Englert says:

      I believe the American cancer society has a page where you can see various cancer incidence and mortality rates for each state. Comparing those maps to a background radiation map of the US show visually an inverse correlation. I know this isn’t very scientific, but neither are studies such as the tooth fairy project.

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      Just look up Ramsar, Iran on Wikipedia, and look at the references to several studies made of those people, who have been living in an extremely high natural background radiation area for generations. They are healthier than their control groups.

      I like to explain the fallacy of LNT (Linear Non-Threshold) theory in everyday terms: it basically says that if one guy takes 100 aspirin tablets in a day, it kills him; ten people each take ten tablets in a day it kills one of them; 100 people each take one tablet a day, it kills one of them; and so on. A hundred tablets constitute a lethal, dose no matter how it is distributed over a population. This is how they calculate that the releases from Chernobyl will cause (a calculated, estimated) 4000 additional cancers eventually.

      Obviously a tenth of an aspirin each taken by a thousand persons harms no one (and may have some beneficial effects). There is some dosage point, a threshold, which may vary for each individual, at which beneficial transitions to harmful, and one where harmful transitions to fatal.

      So maybe we should actually be using a NLT (Non-Linear Threshold) theory instead of LNT. This would pull the rug out from under some of the antis most radiophobic assertions, and prevent millions from being spent to avoid a few mR.

  3. James Greenidge says:

    Apologies; bad joints = bad typing. I meant “side effects” in the first sentence and “peoples who long dwelled”, not swelled.

    James Greenidge

  4. Daniel says:

    On the topic of radiation and its impact on health, I think the IAEA has done a very poor job of informing the world. I understand it is part of their mission. They did not perform.

    I think it was the IAEA responsibility to counter balance the Japanese government when they started evacuating additional towns 2 months after the tsunami hit and for readings of 20 msv a year.

    Who’s job is it to step up to the plate and inform?

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      “Who’s job is it to step up to the plate and inform?”

      I guess it’s yours and mine.

      Unfortunately, like many worthwhile efforts, the pay stinks and no good deed goes unpunished. Just the satisfaction at the end of the day of a job well done, and the sight of a few anti arguments lying in smoking ruins.

      • Rod Adams says:

        @Atomikrabbit –

        In the “satisfaction at the end of the day of a job well done” category, I received a priceless comment a few days ago from Anonymous in a thread on Renewable Energy World



        Rods with the Atomic Show Podcasts et all. No wonder you are so pro nuke. It has paid you well over the years I am sure. It is always good to know ones perspective, from which they speak.

        Renewable Energy for a safer future.

        That guy would get me in trouble with my wife. She is going to start wondering where I am hiding all of my Atomic Show and Atomic Insights checks – especially when she sees the hosting bills for Atomic Insights.

  5. Atomikrabbit says:

    @Rod (AKA “Rods”, or “Adam”)

    Consolidate those blogs into a (revenue-generating) bestseller and I will promote it shamelessly.

  6. DiogenesNJ says:

    Heh. I’m an advocate for nuclear power, and to co-opt the “think global, act local” slogan so popular amongst our self-proclaimed green friends, I suggest this site:


    We’re trying to get Princeton University to install a small modular reactor and take itself off the grid entirely. Wish us luck, folks…

    Also this (greatly expanded version of a) presentation I gave at my kids’ elementary school for Earth Day (yes, after Fukushima):

    “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”: http://www.scribd.com/doc/54904454

    I do bring up the hormesis literature at the end. Between Cohen’s radon study and the NSWS, I don’t see how the BEIR folks can possibly justify hanging onto LNT anymore.

  7. DV82XL says:

    It looks to me as if the one single thing preventing a reassessment of LNT is regulatory paralysis. The metamorphosis of regulatory process into substance is subtle and quite unrelated to the underlying scientific merits. Uncoordinated regulation can — and with radiation repeatedly does — translate good intentions into bad safety and environmental policies. More importantly it makes relaxing a standard very difficult.

    To understand this we must look beyond LNT and into the process itself.

    Most regulators operate relatively independent from political control. Giving up control rights to a regulator makes it independent and it decisions not subject to political whim. In theory this means that regulation will not necessarily change with each new government. As a result, an independent regulatory bureaucracy plays a moderating role in the political process by reducing the politically induced fluctuations of regulatory policies. However it does mean that the regulator can become less responsive and unable to change rules swiftly. This is because its mandate is to create rules based on fact, not popularity or political expediency.

    However weighing fact is often not as simple as one might think it is and the reality is that what a regulator has to work with is a body of opinions from which it must decide what the facts are and that is not easy. It is also made harder because often membership in the decision making body of the regulator is made up of individuals not part of the industry, or with a background in the technical aspects of the field, on purpose in the belief that they will provide a more neutral point of view. Mixed opinions coupled with those that may not understand the subject in its entirety, and the need for consensus (which is how these bodies are supposed to work) makes relaxation of existing standards almost impossible unless the fact are so clear that there is no question.

    LNT is one of the areas where there is a plurality of opinion, and it is difficult to determine the truth unless one has the background to do so, and thus maintaining the status quo is just about all most regulators can do.

    • Gillis_42 says:


      Was told that the nuclear industry would never change it’s stance as it’s better to expect the worst when considering doses.

      That and scientifically it’s hard to quantify low dose effects because so many other things factor into the chance of getting cancer.. Diet, exercise, stress etc… If you look at cancer rates for different countries it varies wildly (even when accounting for background rates and smoking and other obvious contributors). Don’t think any regulator would stick it’s neck out, imagine the green backlash!. It’s a bit sad really.

  8. Gillis_42 says:

    Looking forward to reading that when I get some free time.

    I’m guessing it’s a sort of twist on the Hormesis model for radiation doses.. Massive fan of that since I read this guys book: http://www.radiationandreason.com/

    Particle physicist who got annoyed with the bad rep nuclear gets so wrote a pop-science book (and does talks) to explain the reality of things.. Loads of easy to understand evidence and FANTASTICALLY well written!

  9. Joffan says:

    It is not widely understood or promoted, but BEIR VII throws the LNT hypothesis under the bus.

    Although they do not advocate a threshold (and tie themselves in knots to avoid considering such a concept), they use a reducing factor called DDREF which means that the effects of low-level radiation are arbitrarily reduced. This means that any data which does not show a statistically signifiant beneficial effect from radiation can be reconciled with some value of the factor DDREF. No constraints are put on that factor.

    But the other aspect of this factor, apart from its protection of the “no threshold” concept, is that “linear” is dead. Low-dose effects are unambiguously and significantly less harmful per mSv than moderate-dose. When DDREF is seriously discussed with a value of ten – that is, one-tenth the per-Sv damage compared to moderate doses – The question inevitably arises of how, exactly, is it possible to detect such miniscule levels of health impact? Effectively, they are below the threshold but still unwilling to admit it.

    This also incidentally kills the “collective dose” idea so beloved of body-counters in the wake of Chernobyl.


    • DV82XL says:

      “The question inevitably arises of how, exactly, is it possible to detect such miniscule levels of health impact? Effectively, they are below the threshold but still unwilling to admit it.”

      It’s nonsense. This is now firmly in the realm of statistical artefact caused by over extension of the computed relationship. This sort of thing is covered in most freshmen Intro to Stats courses; it is that fundamental an error.

      This is nothing but regulatory ass covering – not science

    • Brian Mays says:

      they use a reducing factor called DDREF which means that the effects of low-level radiation are arbitrarily reduced.

      Oh, don’t worry. Dedicated researchers are working hard to publish studies with the goal of getting rid of the DDREF (see an example and the accompanying editorial).

  10. Hank Roberts says:

    I have a suggestion (not original with me):

    Wait until the research is published.

    The study needed to answer the questions about low levels of radiation was discussed, designed, and begun; details availaable, here:


    Hat tip to:

  11. Hank Roberts says:

    (That’s all I could find out — no details on the study itself, which is rather odd, just the claim that a study has been started by that company).

  12. Lisa Knobel says:

    Living in Colorado at 8500 for 12 years, I have received more exposure from natural sources than I ever received working at a nuclear power plant for a similar 12 year period. Add in the MRI’s, IVPs, and Thyroid irradiation and I am definitely over my occupational exposure. The EPA has a terrific exposure calculator. They also show that Colorado has some of the highest radon levels in the country, yet Colorado reports lung cancer rates lower than the average for the country. More interestingly are the maps showing the regions of high radon and high lung cancer – the Mississippi delta region has the highest lung cancer rates and lowest radon levels. The real crime has been that we have allowed hysterical people to stop the US from using radiation to protect our food supply.